Sullen and/or Uncommunicative

Kids – and especially teenage kids – can sometimes withdraw from family communication and particularly from communication with their parents. They may retreat in different ways. Sometimes they sulk around the house saying very little to anyone including family, friends and others. Sometimes they don’t say much to their parents while they maintain contact with other family members and/or they talk non-stop on the phone to their friends, text madly away or chat avidly online. Sometimes their mood is morose for just a few hours and then they’re “suddenly” all happy again. But sometimes they withdraw for weeks or months on end. These silent and sullen periods are confusing for parents; how can parents tell if their child needs professional help or if he or she is just being a kid who needs space?

If you are dealing with a sullen or uncommunicative youngster, consider the following tips:

No One is Happy and “On” All the Time
Neither children nor adults experience constant positive moods. It’s normal for all of us to feel stressed or low, off and on throughout a day. Circadian rhythms alone (our biological clocks) affect our moods and energy levels, as does our diet, our exercise (or lack of it) and the various life stressors that each day brings. It’s important to give kids space to be a little irritable or quiet; they – like the rest of us – may need recovery time. Therefore, there’s no need to panic when you see that your child is in a mood. Instead, note the child’s mood and ask if there’s anything you can offer. For instance, you might say something like, “You seem a little down. Do you want to talk or do you need a little neck rub?” If the child declines on both counts, you just say “O.K.” and move on. You have shown an appropriate level of interest and concern without being intrusive or annoying. However, if the child is normally pretty balanced and then enters into an unremitting low, sad-looking mood for two weeks straight, you should express more concern. “Honey, I’m getting concerned. You’ve looked really sad for two weeks now and this isn’t like you. Is there something going on that is hard for you to deal with or are you feeling sad for no reason in particular? I don’t mind if you don’t want to talk to me about it – maybe I’m not the right person. But if you’re having trouble getting into a happier place, I want you to know that Dr. So & So is very nice to talk to and she might be able to help.”

Normal Needs for Privacy
Mood issues aren’t the only reason that kids withdraw from communication with their parents. Sometimes they are just expressing a normal need for privacy. No one likes their life to be a completely open book. You don’t share everything with your child and your child doesn’t need to share everything with you. If you don’t give enough privacy voluntarily, then a child may take it by refusing to open up. One way to offer privacy is to avoid intensive questioning. For instance, don’t ask your child detailed questions like “Who did you talk to today? What did you talk about? What is Bobby doing this weekend? Were you invited? Why not? Have you spoken to Carey lately? Don’t you think you should?” and so on. Children subjected to such inquisitions often learn to give very little information about anything. However, even when parents don’t ask much, teenagers are notorious for wanting to keep a private life. They may have no noteworthy secrets; being quiet doesn’t always mean that the youngster is engaging in suspicious activities. It may just be a case of privacy for privacy’s sake (i.e. “I don’t tell my mom who I see on the weekend not because I have something to hide, but just because I don’t feel like telling her.”). Sometimes, of course, excessive secrecy does indicate a problem behavior. However, usually there are other behavioral clues that contribute to a suspicious picture (for instance: a sudden drop in school marks, red eyes, unusual irritability, strange behavior, a change in behavior and so on). A lack of open communication by itself, is not necessarily cause for concern and in fact, is considered to be pretty normal in adolescents.

Set Appropriate Boundaries
If your child is otherwise happy and well, it is fine to set boundaries for the expression of sullen and uncommunicative behavior. For instance, if your kid is able to talk nicely to his or her friends and others, then go ahead and ask him or her to speak nicely to the folks at home as well. Make sure, however, that you are being mostly positive and pleasant yourself – check your communication ratio. Are you 90% positive and only 10% in the criticism-instruction-discipline section with your teenager (80-20 with your younger child)? If not improve your own pleasant behavior first and then ask your child to do the same. There is no need to allow rude behavior in the home and doing so gives your child the wrong message that family members aren’t real people with real feelings. It’s fine to say something like, “You don’t have to have a long conversation with me if you you’re not in the mood, but when I greet you please just look up for a moment and say ‘hi.’ It’s not acceptable to completely ignore a person who is talking to you and especially,  your parent.” If the child continues to ignore you after you’ve provided this information, something deeper may be going on – perhaps there are parent-child relationship issues, discipline issues or mood issues that would be best treated with professional help.

More Serious Mood Issues
When a previously happy child suddenly becomes sullen and/or uncommunicative for an extended period of time, he or she might be suffering from an internal or external stress. Internal stresses include mental health issues like social anxiety or depression. External stress includes life events like marital breakdown, failing grades or bullying at school. In children and adolescents, depression often shows up as irritable mood rather than sad mood, and is accompanied by other behaviors like changes in eating and sleeping patterns, a tendency to isolate from people, excessive low self-esteem or insecurity, changes in energy and other symptoms. If you are concerned about whether your child’s behavior requires professional intervention, ask your doctor for a referral to a child and adolescent mental health professional with whom you can discuss the issue.

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